Should They Stay or Should They Go? Federal Employees Talk About the Ethics of Sticking It Out With the Trump Administration

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State Department employees listen to an address from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on May 3, 2017. Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

On the same day in early June that an intelligence contractor was arrested for leaking a document on how Russia hacked into voter-registration systems, a State Department diplomat resigned in protest of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Meanwhile, some 180 federal workers signed up for a February workshop where legal experts counseled them on how to express civil disobedience, and others have sought help from whistle-blower-protection groups.

But for every story of resistance to Trump’s government from the inside, there are thousands of stories of civil servants who have quietly stayed in their jobs, keeping their heads down, carrying on their work with varying degrees of consternation or joy, as the case may be. Many are weighing whether it’s better for the country if they stick it out or leave, and what their personal red lines will be — what action of the administration would make staying impossible for them.

The decision to leave can be a wrenching choice. Of the federal employees who tell their stories below, only one has decided definitively to resign. The rest still hope they can do more good within the government than outside it. Their biggest fear, though, is that just the opposite will happen; that by staying, they’ll be complicit in causing harm.

The State Department Worker Who Is Willing to Stomach a Lot, But Not Anything

Any particular question, even beyond my own work, regarding malice toward the LGBT community here in the United States would be my personal red line. That’s me personally, just coming from parents who are from that community. If there were an executive-order issue that eroded the rights of the LGBT community, it would be enough for me to say, “I’m walking away from this administration and from federal work.” I wouldn’t want to be in any situation where I’m working for a man who’s telling me my family are second-class citizens. We’ve come a long way in getting past that.

Mostly, though, I think my co-workers and I are concerned about somehow being complicit in a policy that is not an evidence-based, good policy practice. I don’t mean, like, This is my moral standard on that issue. I mean, like, literally policy that hurts people. So within the context of my own work on human rights and security, if we were looking at certain policy solutions, particularly those involving women and girls, that didn’t have a scientific policy backing … But I don’t know. I could probably live with some pretty bad policy. I’d be really unhappy, and eventually I’d leave.

But the most important thing to remember is that at the end of the day, we’re public servants, and we’re here to serve. And those who don’t want to are leaving, or have left, or are making preparations to leave. I’ve had five close friends who have left in the last five months. They’re just people that really believe in a set of values, and the fact that the president doesn’t align with those values was enough.

All this talk of resistance [from within the State department] is sensationalistic. But the political overlay of what is essentially sort of a neutral, professional workforce is really acute right now. I’m in sort of a national-security fellowship program, distinct from my work, and the leaders of that program said, “For those of you who are choosing to stay in government, we’re not judging you. That’s really great. You do your thing!” I think they were trying to be emotionally intelligent, but it was just unbelievably condescending. It was like, “It’s okay.” I was like, “Excuse me!” [laughs] “I’m a public servant! I anticipate working for Republicans and Democrats, and who knows, maybe even Gary Johnson, a libertarian. I don’t know.”

The EPA Employee Who Is Trying to Keep Talking About Climate Change

I handle things related to research and policy. The whole lead-in-drinking-water issue is very much under my territory. [When we found out Scott Pruitt had been named EPA director] we were terrified! He seemed to be somebody who understood the legal underpinnings of our work, and the ways to legally unbind it. If it were just somebody who had passionate views on climate change or something, that would be one thing. But he’s actually an attorney by background. He’d be able to undo things for a long time to come. He’s competent in the wrong ways.

Attitudes changed immediately. I was going to give a talk on climate change around Earth Day, at a local institution. I had agreed to it in early January, before the administration change. After it changed, they said, “You can’t do any public-facing events on climate change. Or they have to be really vetted through headquarters.” So I changed the name of my talk, basically, but still did it. It was risky, yes: in terms of the administration finding out, but more so because local community members in the audience tried to really dig into me. We pay your salary and the administrator’s salary! How can you be here and talk about climate change while they’re doing this other stuff? I had to defend myself.

Now I’m really cautious. What my legal department told me is that if there happens to be a reporter there, and I’m speaking openly about climate change, and it goes against what the new administration is saying, that could affect my job. Somebody at headquarters could find out. I don’t know whether I can get fired just for talking about science, but I guess it’s possible. Anything’s possible now.

The only thing that was really a blow to my work was a ruling on a pesticide that is still used in certain instances. It primarily affects brain development in children. Pruitt came out and said they’d made a final ruling that they would not ban it completely. It’s devastating to me.

Some days I feel like it’s my duty to stay. I talk to other people in the agency, and friends outside of it, who say, You’re someone who cares. You have to stay. If you leave, they win, and they’re not going to fill your position with somebody who is as passionate about the work. I talk with co-workers about it, and we try to think of ways we can stick it out. But when I have to do something like defend the agency’s position on this pesticide decision, I really take it to heart. It’s eating me up inside.

My perspective goes up and down, but it’s been pretty despairing for the last two months. That signing of the executive order to look at rolling back different climate-change regulations — the one they did at the EPA with the coal miners on stage — that was really bad. And we all watched that together. Anytime there’s a big visit from a president or anyone like that to the EPA offices, it’s broadcast to the big conference rooms in all the offices. So we were invited to go and view this. I went, and it was pretty painful. There was a little booing. It was mostly silence. There were people silently giving the finger, but nobody was shouting obscenities. Maybe whispering them.

It’s only going to get worse, I think, as they put more political appointees at the regional headquarters. We’re just not optimistic at all. Some people say, Oh, none of it’s really going to happen; the budget cuts aren’t going to be that bad; he’ll get impeached. But I don’t think so. I think we’re in for at least four years of this. Plus, I’m in the prime of my career, and to waste four years of it is not something I’m interested in doing.

Kind of surprisingly, nobody has said, “I can’t take it,” and left. A lot of us are looking, but we want to stick it out as long as we can — in the hope that, I don’t know, something changes. However, what I’ve discovered in looking at new jobs is that our skills are not easily transferable outside of government agencies. The way you progress here is a little bit different. I really love my job, and I thought I would just stay. But now that I’ve started interviewing for stuff, it just feels like, if I don’t really sell myself and get out sooner rather than later, I might be stuck.

The HHS Employee Who Is Keeping Her Head Down While She Waits to be Fired

We get these weekly highlights emails from the secretary and so much of them are like,”You’re doing such great work on behalf of the American people and your programs are making a difference and when AHCA passes we’re finally gonna give the American people the health care they want!” You’re telling this to the people who implemented the ACA, to the policy experts who implemented it. It’s so false and duplicitous and it’s so transparent. It’s like, why do you have to send us these cheesy, ridiculous emails telling us how amazing we are when we all know where you stand? You’re championing health care that would reduce coverage for tens of millions of people. We’re a bunch of folks who are there because we want to help the American people. There’s a lot of, “You are doing such a good job but as soon as we’re able to cut as many of you as we can we’re going to.” It’s a weird vibe in that way. We’re trying to keep our heads down and keep doing our work as best as we can.

The State Department Employee Who Says the Administration Is like a Python

It’s kind of terrible, but for a weird reason. It’s not like I go into my office every day and I’m having to implement policies I disagree with. It’s more like this slow squeeze of morale, just always. We have been told since the administration started that there’s going to be all of this restructuring and reorganizing, so we’re just waiting for a lot of changes, but waiting is inherently kind of shitty because when you’re waiting you don’t know what you can promise, you don’t know what your priorities are or what you’re trying to accomplish, you don’t know if you’ll be here in a week, two weeks, a month later. I spend a lot of my job doing external relationship building. I don’t do any of that anymore, because I don’t know what I can say.

All of our previously like-minded countries now don’t know what the hell the U.S. is doing. We’re completely unpredictable in the international space, which is embarrassing. It’s embarrassing to be at the U.N. and be representing the U.S. government. We get so much side-eye.

We’ve lost a lot of people, lots of positions have not been filled. I absolutely have already applied to some jobs. I want to get out immediately. And I was willing to stay. Even now, I’d like to be able to stay, but it doesn’t feel like I can. It doesn’t feel political in a Republican, Democratic side of things. I just feel like there is no interest in the work that we do. It’s not going to be a priority.

There isn’t really a single red line for me. I feel like this administration is like a python, slowly squeezing the life, the joy, the purpose — everything — out of us. So people are going to either suffer through it and deal with it and come out smaller and slimmer, or they’re going to leave and be like, no, I’m not doing that.

The Energy Department Employee Who Hopes This Is Temporary

It might be because I’m an optimist, but things have actually turned out worse than I expected. The proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 would be disastrous and while I haven’t personally met many of the new administration staff, I’m not hearing good things about their work. I still have pride in my job and the general mission of my agency, but the situation is quite depressing. Even though the current administration’s budget cuts are only proposed at this stage, I’m already hearing about the potential for losing the next generation of scientists and engineers and about preparations for laying off hundreds of skilled workers. I’m just hoping that the downward trend we’re currently seeing in our country’s commitment to science and technology will only be temporary.

The State Department Employee Who’s Leaving Because Tillerson Already Crossed Her Red Line

I thought a lot, before January 20, about whether I was going to go or stay. And I boiled it down, essentially, to three questions. First, can I do my job? And can I do good? Can I be a resource to people who are coming in? Are people interested in the State Department’s mission? And if they are, then I can certainly do good.

Question No. 2 was more specific to the issues I care about. Can I do more good on the inside or on the outside? Can I continue to feel proud to walk into a room and say, “The United States still cares about these human rights”? Or am I going to feel like I’m lying? Or am I going to feel like I’m complicit in some sort of evil? Am I better serving the public good by being on the outside, and saying that and meaning it?

And the third thing, that everybody has to consider, is, What is your red line? What is the moment where this administration crosses the red line, and you no longer feel that you can do your job, because you do feel complicit, and you do feel like you’re defending something you cannot defend? And it’s a really hard thing to define a red line when the person who is in the Oval Office got there after tapes surfaced of him saying, I moved on her like a bitch. I mean, our red line has to be so red, and so bright, and so thick if that’s not the starting point.

There were two specific things [Tillerson] did, that I had to be a part of, that … that broke my heart. To talk about them specifically would pretty much identify me. I’m leaving and going to an organization that works on those very things, in a proactive way.

I hope to return in three and a half years. I know it sounds hokey, but there is truly no bigger honor than walking into a room, or walking into a bilateral meeting with another country, or with a group of advocates, or into the United Nations, and saying, This is what the United States cares about. We care about human rights. We care about LGBT rights. We care that people not be brutalized. We care about journalist safety. We care about these issues, and we’re going to put our money where our mouth is. We’re going to walk the walk and talk the talk. There’s truly no greater honor and no greater privilege. I’ve lived in other places of the world, and we are truly, when we are acting with our values, we are truly a remarkable nation.

Sorry, I’m getting a little choked up. I hope to work for a president who cares about those values again. I will say that I’m excited not to have to fill out 40 bajillion different forms every time I want to take a taxi, for example. But I still miss this building, and I will miss the people I work with. I will miss representing my country.

We’re looking for more federal employees to tell their stories. To get in touch securely, contact reporter Nick Tabor at nicktabor@protonmail.com or on Signal at 517-881-0087. Sources’ identities will be kept confidential.

6 Federal Employees on Sticking It Out in the Trump Era